Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an excellent article about Steve Jobs called The Tweaker. In the article, Malcolm explains that Steve Jobs’ real genius wasn’t as an innovator in the mould of Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison, but as ‘tweaker’, someone who refines and perfects existing inventions.
Yesterday (Thursday 10th November 2011) I luckily caught a live chat with Malcolm Gladwell on The New Yorker website in which he answered people’s questions about Steve Jobs. It was a really interesting hour and a great follow-up to the article. Here’s the live chat transcript:
Hello everyone. Welcome to the New Yorker live chat… We have an hour!
Comment From Cathi O:
Did you ever meet Steve Jobs in person?
I tried to interview him for my book Outliers, but failed. I settled for Bill Gates instead.
Comment From Kirsten:
Hi Malcolm! I don’t have a question about Jobs yet, but wanted to say I LOVE your TEDTalk on spaghetti sauce!
I have included this question just to set the appropriate tone for the rest of the chat. :-)
Comment From Mark T:
Do you find it interesting that at Apple Jobs seemed to thrive as a control freak, yet at Pixar seemed to promote collaboration for success?
Yes. Isaacson writes about this as well. I think it goes to a fascinating part of Job’s pesonality—which is that he had a binary view about people. He either put you in the “God” camp, which he thought everyone you did was brilliant. Or he put you in the idiot camp, where he screamed at you and told you you were stupid. John Lasseter, the head guy at Pixar, really is a genius—and Jobs knew it. So he knew enough to leave him alone. That, to me, is every bit as crucial a part of Job’s genius as the times where he did impose his will.
Comment From Sean K:
Has anyone else suspected that Steve had a personality disorder, perhaps narcissistic personality disorder? I got a whiff of that from his biography.
He probably does. But then again, so do a lot of successful people. There’s been quite a lot of interest in this idea recently—that really driven, creative people often have some kind of “hypomania.” They are structurally imbalanced, which is part of what makes them so dynamic. There’s another argument which says that a person of moderate or low intelligence with this kind of personality disorder is mentally ill. A person with high intelligence is creative….
Comment From Guest:
What most surprised you as you were writing about Steve Jobs?
I hadn’t realized that Job’s personality was quite as extreme as Isaacson made it out to be. And remember Isaacson was writing an authorized biography, and Isaacson was genuinely fond of Jobs. The stories in the book of his screaming fits, and coldness and disloyalty are just plain orneriness are kind of unbelievable. I’m not sure I would have wanted to work for him. David Remnick is not like that!
Comment From Rodricks Devindranath:
Hi Malcolm, what do you make of the fact that Steve Jobs cried in meetings so often?
I think this goes with what I was saying before. He’s just NOT a balanced person. Isaacson makes it clear that always had difficulty containing his emotions. I suspect that’s a bit part of what drove him to such extraordinary heights It’s the great paradox of Jobs: the same things that make you hate him are the things that made him great.
Comment From Ang:
Do you think that Jobs’ visionary briliance is a fair tradeoff for having such a lack of empathy? I mean, humanity-wise?
I do, yes. I think that the world works best when we find a way to let every conceivable personality type flourish. For some kinds of difficult tasks, we need arrogant, driven, impossible people. I said before I wouldn’t have wanted to work for Jobs. But some people are tough enough to flourish in that kind of environment—and one of Job’s other, extraordinary, gifts was finding the kind of person for whom his kind of perfectionism worked. If you need a nurturing environment, there’s always the Post Office.
Comment From Adam:
Do you find that there is a disconnect or a certain amount of slack given to Apple products based on their reputation as having the best design? For example, my girlfriend just got an iphone, and its the first I’ve really played with one, and the screen flipping functionality is very slow and doesn’t work half the time. I’ve never heard about these things talked about, only how everything apple creates has flawless design.
Well, you’re preaching to the choir here. I’m a PC/Blackberry guy. I can never get over the fact that when I go to some coffee house to work in Brooklyn EVERYONE else has an Apple laptop—which not only cost twice as much as my HP but also needs to be plugged in because the battery is terrible. But I’ll say this. Their laptop is certainly prettier than mine.
Comment From Joel Matthys:
You say that Jobs genius was as a “tweaker,” like Richard Roberts. But Roberts died in relative obscurity, while Jobs death was mourned as a national tragedy. How do you account for the difference?
I think the difference is that we have come to realize just how crucial these “tweakers” are. Think about it this way. As technology gets more complex, and solutions to problems require much more cross—disciplinary thinkng and interactivity with other systems, the tweakers start to really MATTER. The number of times we start with a blank slate these days is pretty small.
Comment From Jonathan Weiss:
Do you think there’s a hypocrisy in vilifying people like Lloyd Blankfein and other Wall Street moguls, while celebrating and deifying Steve Jobs, who was guilty of so many of the classic ills of industrialism and corporatism. Its seems like there were many people doing both in the wake of Jobs’ death a month ago.
I don’t think so. I think the thing about Jobs was that we can point to the tangible evidence of his genius. He changed the kinds of devices and tools that people use every day of their lives. A world without Apple is a very different place. Is a world without Goldman that different? Not sure. My favorite dinner party trick with investment bankers is asking them to explain why they are “important”—or at least important enough to deserve the money they make. It’s always fun to listen to the answer.
Comment From Timmy:
Was Isaacson too close and too in awe of Jobs to write an objective biography? How do avoid this problem in writing about someone who is extremely impressive and an innovative genius?
That’s a great question. In one sense, it didn’t matter, because Jobs from the beginning made it clear that he wasn’t going to insist on any kind of editorial approval. But Isaacson himself is clear that he became close to Jobs by the end, and that that fact influenced the book to some extent. You can see that. But I think that was a plus, in the end. The best parts of the book are when Isaacson makes you understand how deeply human Jobs was—and that’s the kind of insight you get as a writer when you let down your barriers of “objectivity.” There will be plenty of other opportunities for other writers to talk about Jobs with more objectivity.
Comment From Allison:
You alluded to Bill Gates’ vision in his recent philanthropy at the end of your piece. Will we see an article from you elucidating that point (please)? I’d love to read it!
Maybe. I have to say that this is one part of Job’s life that I feel strongly about. He had no time for philantrophy, which is a shame. But worse, he seemed to hold Gates in some contempt for his extraordinary work with the Gates Foundation—and that is an outrage. The world will remember Gates long after it has forgotten Jobs. If the research Gates funds ends up curing malaria, there will be a statute of him in virtually every country in the world.
Comment From CJ:
Do you think that society creates too much of a tortured genius paradigm? That is, we often seem to look at the personalities of people like Jobs and say “Oh, well it’s just the price we pay for greatness.” But as someone who has studied and been around a lot of greatness, how strong is the correlation between being awesome and being a perfect ass? And if it is strong, how necessary do you think that fact is or is it just the result of people playing into some cultural narrative?
Well, you don’t have to be jerk to be a genius. But, on the other hand, sometimes jerks are geniuses, and their jerkiness is part of what allows them to accomplish what they accomplish—and we have to decide, in each instance, whether that’s a price we’re willing to pay. My view is that it’s usually worth it—particularly if I don’t have to work for the jerky genius. :-)
Comment From Matt Holden:
You write: “Jobs’s vision, brilliant and perfect as it was, was narrow” and portray him as a mere “tweaker”. But for all his faults, he redefined several major industries and didn’t seem to lack in vision. Are you just trying to be provocative or do you really believe this?
Oh no. I think you misread the piece. Not a “mere” tweaker. The argument was that tweaking is an essential part of the process of innovation—and in many cases the part of the innovation process that has the greatest economic impact.
Comment From Rodricks Devindranath:
I understand now why you think the revolution won’t be tweeted, Malcolm - because you’re using a BlackBerry. Those things belong to the days of the French Revolution. Would you consider upgrading?
Never! Me and my Chevy Nova and my Underwood typewriter and my eight track tapes will go down to defeat together!
Comment From Gunnar Waldman:
Following up on Mr. Weiss’ comment, do you feel that, eventually, Job’s lack of empathy would have brought consequences upon Apple. For example, after a fair bit of media about conditions in foreign assembly plants leading to worker suicides (perhaps because of unrealistic deadlines) Jobs’ response was measured and defensive of apple’s working environment policies, but certainly not convincing. Compounded by a bad quarter or two (it’s possible) , could issues like that begin to drag Apple’s public perception down? Or is it just sexy is as sexy does?
Interesting. The issue for Apple isn’t so much that they can continue to innovate—because remember Job’s greatest talent was recruiting and building a brilliant team. It is that the halo effect of having a cultural icon as their leader is now gone. I wonder if we will now view the sins being committed in their name in China a little differently now.
Comment From Ciro:
I understand what you meant by calling him a “Tweaker, but in order to tweak something to such a brilliant point, i think he needed to know his goal, and demanded people around him to get him to those goals. I can’t help to think this is similar to what someone in office should do. Do you think he would’ve been a good candidate for Mayor/Governor or something similar?
Well, after watching the Republican debate last night, I think I can say that almost anyone in American could make a better political candidate that the ones we’ve got right now… But more seriously, I’m not sure we want dictatorial-visionary-tyrant types in higher public office. People always complain that government is slow-moving and conservative and not very innovative—but they forget that it is SUPPOSED to be that way. That’s what keeps us safe. It’s the tyrants and the visionaries that end up starting wars and locking people up and doing crazy things. I think we want the visionaries in the private sector, where they can do the most good—and also do the least damage.
Comment From Rachel:
How can we cultivate more Steve Jobs’ in our culture, which we like to uphold as a bastion of creativity and freedom (esp in contrast to countries like China) but in reality and in a departure from stereotype, seems to reinforce conformity, discipline, etc. (see Amy Chua, the cottage-industry of extracurriculars, tutors, etc to get students into the coveted Ivy League)?
It’s kind of interesting that he never graduated from college, right?
Comment From William:
You write in Outliers about how the specific time period of the 60s and 70s made for a ripe environment to produce computer geniuses like Bill Joy and Bill Gates. Given that Steve Jobs wasn’t the technical genius per se (that was Wozniak), was there something still about the 70s that made it more likely for a Jobs type—notorious for drivenness—to emerge? How would his vision have fared a decade ealier, or later, for that matter?
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Jobs comes back from Reed College in Oregon, after dropping out, and returns to his parent’s house. Isaacson says that he wasn’t worried about getting a job. Then he explains why: the want ads in the local paper, just for technology jobs in Silicon Valley, ran to SIXTY pages. SIXTY! Needless to say, that was a long time ago, in a country far away.
Comment From Betty:
Did LSD really change Job’s thinking and play a role in his innovation, or is it just a myth?
Well my experiences with LSD have had a major impact on my life. KIDDING.
I tend to be a little skeptical of people who think that things seen or said or experienced, while under the influence, are terribly important. I mean, if you have ever been the sober one in a room—while everyone else is stoned—you know that what appears profound to everyone else is usually pretty ridiculous.
Comment From LB:
You said that one would hope that Steve Jobs would grow in his humanity over the years - but didn’t much. Isaacson seem to have a thread in his narrative that he was becoming more aware of his excesses?
Yes. But at the same time Isaacson makes clear that Jobs was ALWAYS aware of his excesses. Here’s the crucial thing. He wasn’t some kind of oblivious, socially-deficient nerd. On the contrary, he was exquisitely attuned to the feelings and emotions of others. That’s why he was always able to be so devastating in his comments and actions: because he knew exactly where other people’s weaknesses were. He isn’t a psychopath. They have no empathy at all. He’s a really great bully—who understands you so perfectly he knows exactly how to hurt you.
Comment From FO:
To return to an earlier comment you made in this chat, what are some of the responses investment bankers have given in response to your question re why their work is important? Very curious. Also, love that you have the cahoonies to ask that!
They talk a lot about “liquidity”. To which, I think, the logical response is that the rest of us would be perfectly willing to provide liquidity for half the salary.
Comment From KRL:
I just cannot get over how little layman recognition Jonathan Ives has gotten all this time. Has this surprised you as well?
I think it bugs Jonathan Ive too.
Comment From Nicholas:
What do you think about the extreme lengths to which people go to excuse and rationalize the behavior of Steve Jobs? Is there another single person in this whole world whose abominable behavior professionally and personally would get this special treatment? And what is it about him that we find to be so mitigating that we do not condemn him like we would every other person imaginable?
I thought a lot about this. I think that it is because we (or, least, others, since—as I’ve stated—I’m a PC/Blackberry/Chevy Nova guy) have such intimate relationships with Apple products. I mean, people with iphones quite literally touch them more than they touch anything—or anyone—else! It’s the techological equivalent of those little dogs that society women carry around in their handbag. When you are that closely connected to something, you tend to idolize the person who created it. I have roughly the same feelings towards the inventors of ESPN.
That last line? A joke.
Albeit not a very good one.
Comment From Jim:
Do you think that the design, like the work done by apple, is the primary industry of America now? Whether it be Apple, Facebook, Ford or whatever, it seems that this is the (only) thing we do best now. Interestingly, design is also the main export of countries like Italy…. hmmm
I fully expect to end my days being paid minimum wage to design apps for iphone466.
Comment From Milton Garces:
Interesting comment on the perceived quasi-static role of government. How would the R&D branches of government and education? Their aim is to encourage innovation and succession.
Yes. But we don’t ask them to innovate. We ask them to fund innovation—-and they have done that task best when they haven’t imposed an agenda on those they support. The role that the NSF plays in backing basic research is the best example.
Comment From SDB:
Have you had a chance to meet with Tim Cook? Based on how he acted in the Jobs tribute video, he seems like the opposite of Steve. These next few years are going to be interesting.
That is an understatment!
Comment From Fred:
Are Apple, Google, and Facebook coming to have too much power and control over access to media? Are they coming to be gateways to the internet?
How great would it be if that list included the New Yorker?
Ok. That’s all folks! Thank you.